Are you better off today than you were 4 years ago?

Presidential debate
President Barack Obama listens to the Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the second presidential debate, the only to be held in a townhall format, at the David Mack Center at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, Oct. 16, 2012.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Are you better off today than you were four years ago? The question, made famous by President Reagan in a 1980 debate, has reemerged as a popular talking point this election season. Turns out the way you answer may depend on your personal story.

Bloomberg Businessweek Deputy Editor Romesh Ratnesar joined The Daily Circuit Monday to look at the question and how Americans might be answering it today. The simple answer is there is no simple answer, he said.

"I think part of it is understanding that the economy is extraordinarily complex, just like American society itself and there are winners and losers in any stage in our history," Ratnesar said. "When you look at the question of, 'Are we better off?' clearly there are people who have done extraordinarily well over the last four years and those tend to be people at the higher rungs of the income level."

In the last four years, median household income is flat and unemployment is at the same rate as it was in January 2009, he said.

" 'Are you better off than you were four years ago?' can be a misleading question because a lot of the problems and a lot of the struggles people have faced are really rooted in trends that date back far before this president took office," he said.

A caller in Wisconsin showed the complexity of the question. Despite lost income, struggles keeping his property and using government assistance when he was facing foreclosure, he's feeling better today.

"My family and I, we're running much leaner now," he said. "Things have changed drastically: I've lost three homes, I've lost two cars, I even lost the best job I ever thought I had. But today, I must say, I feel much better."

Ratnesar said his story epitomizes the landscape of the country.

"There is certainly a sense that the economy is not growing as quickly as people would like, that jobs are not coming back at the rate that most people might have expected they would," he said "At the same time, I think because we went through the crisis we went through, because households and governments had to adjust to a new reality, the economy in some ways is healthier, it has a stronger foundation, a more stable foundation. It may not mean that we're going to see growth at the rates we had become accustomed to during the boom times."

On the blog, Maggie had a similarly complex view of the last four years.

"Husband's income is up; investments are up; anxiety is high because the investment market is highly erratic especially for retirees (me) or near-retirees (husband) and the small company which my husband manages has been teetering on the brink of extinction due to uncertainties in the marketplace," she wrote. "Our house value is uncertain but property taxes have skyrocketed. The costs of daily living have also increased dramatically. So I would say it is a decidedly mixed picture with a heavy overlay of anxiety."

Charles Wheelan, senior lecturer in public policy at Dartmouth College, also joined the discussion. He said perception is enormously important in answering the question.

"A lot of the run ups in the stock market of course reflect optimism for the future," he said. "Even if you're not feeling particularly good now, if you think things are going to get better, you're going to bid up the price of stocks in anticipation of better times and higher profits. So optimism can often feed on itself in a very positive way."

On the blog, Cindy Sundberg said focusing on the question leads Americans away from the root of our problems.

"Let's quit being so superficial and start digging deeper for the answers to the problems that best the nation and the individuals of the nation," she wrote. "To ask 'Are you better off now than four years ago?' is a cheap way to not have discourse over the issue. It begs a 'Yes' or 'No' answer without any nuanced thought or responsibility."

Are you better off? Comment on the blog.

Meggan Ellingboe contributed to this report.

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